The old saying that music can soothe the savage beast is both celebrated and challenged in "The Violin," the finely crafted writing-directing debut of Mexican filmmaker Francisco Vargas. Stark but absorbing drama follows an aging musician, beautifully played by Don Angel Tavira, who fiddles his way into the front lines of Mexico's peasant revolts during the 1970s. Black-and-white lensing and downbeat conclusion don't bode especially well for pic's commercial prospects, but the assured storytelling and impeccable social-realist values are sure to garner further attention from the festival circuit in general and Latin-themed fests in particular.
Expanded from Vargas' prize-winning short, "The Violin" gets its ugliest moment out of the way at the outset -- a brutal and arguably exploitative scene, set in what appears to be a shadowy basement, in which military officials interrogate and then torture a handful of tied-up villagers.
Filmed largely from the same dispassionate angle, opener establishes Vargas' sober docu-style approach, even as it presents a tableau far more gruesome and upsetting than almost anything that follows.
Action segues abruptly to elderly farmer Don Plutarco (Tavira), son Genaro (Gerardo Taracena) and grandson Lucio (Mario Garibaldi), who scrape together a living as traveling musicians by day (Plutarco plays the violin, Genaro the guitar). By night, they secretly amass resources for the peasant guerrilla movement stirring in the Guerrero region, intent on overthrowing the country's cruel regime.
The men return home to find their village occupied by military officials who have driven everyone into exile. While his son organizes a response, Plutarco, keen on recovering ammunition hidden in his cornfields, ventures back into the village. There, he initiates a tense relationship with the squad captain (Dagoberto Gama, both smug and sinister), one in which the violin plays comes to play an instrumental role.
Pacing is almost too leisurely early on, yet eventually settles into an exquisitely suspenseful rhythm as the cat-and-mouse interplay between Plutarco and the captain takes center stage.
Nonprofessional cast is uniformly strong, but the 81-year-old Tavira, in his acting debut (he was the subject of Vargas' 2004 docu "Tierra caliente ... se mueren los que la mueven"), inspires real affection with his enormously dignified, mildly dyspeptic characterization. His mouth perpetually downturned, his face as weathered and ruggedly expressive as the outdoor locales, Tavira's creation of a mischievously heroic figure disguised as a harmless-looking old man is the tale's chief satisfaction.
In a very real sense, Vargas seems to have tailored the picture specifically for Tavira, himself a lifelong violinist. (The actor lost his right hand in an accident at age 13, an injury that is woven into the narrative but left mysteriously unexplained.)
Rafael Ravello's costumes and Claudio "Pache" Contreras' modest production design, crisply shot on black-and-white by Martin Boege Pare, contribute to the naturalistic feel. Besides Tavira's violin solos, music is sparingly used and almost entirely germane to the setting.
Camera (B&W), Martin Boege Pare; editors, Francisco Vargas Quevedo, Ricardo Garfias; music, Cuauhtemoc Tavira, Armando Rosas; production designer, Claudio "Pache" Contreras; costume designer, Rafael Ravello; sound (Dolby Digital), Isabel Munoz Cota; sound designers, Matias Barberis, Enrique Greiner, Marco A. Henandez; line producer, Luz Maria Reyes; casting, Natalia Beristain, Isabel Cortazar. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 23, 2006. Running time: 98 MIN.